What Is McConnell’s Ammunition in the Battle Against Bannon?

The media is replete these days with stories about the civil war that is heating up between Steve Bannon and Mitch McConnell. To keep the conversation grounded, it is important to remember what this is all about. As Adele Stan documented over a month ago, Bannon and McConnell are proxy warriors in a battle of the oligarchs—Mercers vs Kochs—for control of the Republican Party.

As Republican leaders fret over a possible loss of control of the Senate due to Bannon’s actions, they fail to notice that Bannon is not playing a short-term game for GOP majorities in Congress. Bannon’s game is one for control of the Republican Party writ large.

It’s clear that Mercer has no small amount of envy for the Koch brothers, the billionaire siblings whose will has largely shaped the GOP agenda as the party became ever more dependent on the political infrastructure built by the Kochs and the donor network they have cultivated over the course of decades. No longer insurgents, the Kochs and their political beneficiaries have become part of the GOP establishment…

Bannon and his patron Mercer, it seems, are willing to take their chances on the possible loss of the GOP’s narrow Senate majority if the gambit places Mercer in the kingmaker’s seat, supplanting the Koch brothers in that role.

We’ve been hearing a lot about Bannon lately that tells us how he is waging this war, but not as much from McConnell. That’s why I was interested in an article by David Weigel, Michael Scherer and Robert Costa titled, “McConnell allies declare open warfare on Bannon.”

More than a year ahead of the 2018 congressional contests, a ­super PAC aligned with McConnell (R-Ky.) revealed plans to attack Bannon personally as it works to protect GOP incumbents facing uphill primary fights…

…the McConnell-allied Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) will highlight Bannon’s hard-line populism and attempt to link him to white nationalism to discredit him and the candidates he will support.

Really? That is McConnell’s big plan to defeat Bannon? He’s got a Super PAC that is going to accuse Bannon of being linked to white nationalism? Give me a break! My analysis of McConnell has always been that he is not ideologically driven, but is an expert on playing the power games that go on in Washington. It might be that he’s not tipping his hand at this point and has more up his sleeve. He better hope so, because Bannon isn’t the only one who got a good laugh out of that reporting.

After reading that piece I spent some time trying to think about what McConnell could use against Bannon. Except on trade, there’s not much daylight between establishment Republicans and the insurgents when it comes to policy. So it would probably have to be something personal, which is what was suggested in the quote above. It’s just that a charge of being linked to white nationalism isn’t going to make a dent in the Republican base when race was pretty central to why they voted for Trump-the-insurgent in the first place.

I’m sure Bannon has some pretty ugly skeletons in his personal closet that could be exploited. But once again, we’re talking about a Republican base that voted for Trump after he bragged about committing sexual assault.

What this all comes down to is that, as David Drucker wrote, “Trump has won the civil war where it counts—with voters.” He says that there is a disconnect between the traditional wing of the Republican Party and their voters on how each views Trump.

…where Trump’s Republican opposition sees a dangerous political provocateur, the GOP base sees a fighter who is defending them and their values — against the cultural oppression of the liberal elites in New York and Hollywood and against a political establishment in Washington that bends the rules for everyone but them.

And, where Trump’s Republican opposition sees a radical nationalist who threatens the American melting pot at home and the abdication of U.S. leadership abroad, the GOP rank and file, including some skeptical of Trump, see a jobs-focused president pursuing a largely traditional GOP domestic and foreign policy agenda.

That is the territory Bannon is claiming in his battle against the establishment. What’s interesting to note is that McConnell gave it to him by fanning the tea party base in order to gain their support for his policy of total obstruction during the Obama presidency. The only alternative for McConnell at this point is to make a move away from that extremist landscape—which would mean tacking closer to the Democrats. It sure looks to me like he is between a rock and a hard place of his own making.

Unless McConnell can do better than what we’ve heard so far, the only prayer for Republicans who are being targeted by Bannon in the primaries is to hope that there are some local factors that keep these races from becoming nationalized as a referendum on Trump. Otherwise we’re looking at a Republican Party in the hands of Steve Bannon and the Mercers.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.